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A CurtainUp Review
Bull

"When it comes down to it we're people aren't we, all of us, every single one an we should be treated as human beings."— Carter
Bull
L-R: Sam Troughton, Neil Stuke, Adam James, and Eleanor Matsuura (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
If Mike Bartlett has a dramatic speciality it's human vulnerability, the facade of certainty and the things we do to one another to reveal the fragility at our core. So it was in last season's wrenching study of an unsettled heart,Cock . And so it is again in its companion, Bull, now playing at 59E59 and directed by Clare Lizzimore. But at just 55 minutes, Bull is leaner than its occasionally flabby relative, a knockout punch of a play with a swift and devastating impact.

From an aesthetic perspective it's easy to see the connection between the two. Both make use of unconventional stage designs: in Cock, a cock pit; in its successor, a boxing ring, reconfigured by Soutra Gilmour with a drab carpet and fluorescent overhead lighting to suggest an office space.

While the cock pit serves as an appropriate symbol for the battles within and without in Cock, Bull's staging is perhaps even more thematically apt. From the beginning it's clear this is a battle for survival. Thomas (Sam Troughton), Tony (Adam James), and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) arrive for a meeting with their employer with the understanding that one of them will get the axe.

Though he tries to go pound for pound with his colleagues, the bespectacled, defensive Thomas never stands much of a chance. And the truth is, he's never meant to have one. Like the bull in the ring to which to the play's title alludes, Thomas' fate is sealed. His demise is only a matter of time. What follows is an exercise in intimidation and degradation. The macho Tony and the domineering Isobel rip into Tomas straight away, paralyzing him with verbal feats of strength and coercing him into acts of physical humiliation. Slowly but surely, they strip away every last shred of his dignity, with no lack of mirth. And when their boss, Carter (Neil Stuke), arrives the blows only come more decisively.

As in its predecessor, Bull's unique physical arena allows for a complex ballet of movement. Under Allistair David's choreographic direction, Thomas always seems cornered in and his colleagues maneuver around him like calculating predators. And though the set is minimal, it's surprisingly dynamic. As the action intensifies, the lights subtly dim, and the creeping addition of ambient sound (incorporated beautifully by Christopher Shutt) is enough to change the ambience from bland to menacing, without being ostentatious.

"It's tough, isn't it, life," says Isobel, in perhaps the play's single biggest understatement. And indeed it is. Thomas' problems, it turns out, are deeper than those in the present action. And Isobel and Tony, though they have the upper hand, live equally bleak existences: Tony's, marked by superficiality and, Isobel's by trauma. Nobody really wins here.

Isobel's comment is the precursor to a brutal monologue, which Matsuura delivers with unforgiving precision. Thomas' concurrent breakdown is simultaneously horrifying and thrilling, due primarily to Troughton's virtuoso performance. He shakes, he quietly seethes, and when he explodes with an animal rage, there's no mistaking his commitment and his ability: Troughton is the real deal.

Bartlett's talent is for creating crisp dialogue and finely wrought characters. But Cock and Bull also distinguish him as a visionary with ideas about how the theater should be experienced. A third round would be welcome.

Bull
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Clare Lizzimore
Cast: Adam James (Tony), Eleanor Matsuura (Isobel), Neil Stuke (Carter), Sam Troughton (Thomas)
Set Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Associate Lihting Design: Dale Knoth
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Production Manager: Dan Franklin
AEA Stage Manager: Raynelle Wright
Stage Manager: Sarah Gentle
Choreographer: Alistair David
Fight Director: Christian Thompson
Assistant Director: Jonathan O'Boyle
Wardrobe Supervisor: Emma Thompson
Running Time: 55 minutes
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022, www.59e59.org, (212) 691-5959
From 4/25/13, closing 46/2/13, opening 5/2/13
Performance times: Tue, Wed & Thu 7:15, Fri 8:15, Sat 2:15 & 8:15, Sun 3:15 & 7:15.
Ticket cost: $30-$35
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at 4/30/2013 performance.


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